Bush's belief that process always took precedence over image confirmed his reputation, essentially well-deserved, as a cautious insider rather than a public figure who knew how to rise to historic occasions and use symbols to bring the nation together. In a way it was Bush at both his best and worst. At his worst, he failed to take a memorable event and outline what it meant in larger terms of the long, hard struggle of a free society against a totalitarian state, and perhaps at the very least to showcase those remarkable people in Eastern Europe whose faith in a better, more democratic way during the long, dark hours of communist suppression was finally being rewarded. But it was also Bush at his best, because he was unwilling to exploit a vulnerable colleague -- Gorbachev -- and his distress and humiliation for political profit. Bush, after all, was first and foremost a team player, and unlikely though it might have seemed just a few years earlier, Gorbachev was now his teammate.
Whether or not he celebrated the end of the Cold War, it appeared to be just one more significant boost to his presidency. And it came at virtually the same time that American military forces, as the dominating part of the United Nations coalition, had defeated the Iraqi army in a devastating four-day land war, a rout preceded by five weeks of lethal, high-precision, high-technology air dominance. The stunning success of the American units in the Persian Gulf War, the cool efficiency of their weapons and the almost immediate collapse of the Iraqi forces, had been savored by most Americans as more than a victory over an Arab nation about which they knew little and which had invaded a small, autocratic, oil-producing duchy about which they knew even less. Rather, it had ended a period of frustration and self-doubt that had tormented many Americans for some twenty years as a result of any number of factors: the deep embarrassment of the Vietnam War, the humiliation suffered during the Iranian hostage crisis, and the uneasiness about a core economy that was in disrepair and was falling behind the new muscle of a confident, powerful Japan, known now in American business circles as Japan Inc.
The Gulf War showed that the American military had recovered from the malaise of the Vietnam debacle and was once again the envy of the rest of the world, with the morale and skill level of the fighting men themselves matching the wonders of the weapons they now had at their disposal. The lessons of the Gulf War were obvious, transcending simple military capacity and extending in some larger psychological sense to a broader national view of our abilities. We were back, and American forces could not be pushed around again. Perhaps we had slipped a bit in the production of cars, but American goods, in this case its modern weapons, were still the best in the world. The nation became, once again, strong, resilient, and optimistic.
The troops who fought in the Gulf War were honored as the troops who had fought in Vietnam were not. Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf, the presiding generals of the war, were celebrated as William Westmoreland had never been. Shades of World War II: Powell was the new Eisenhower, the thoughtful, careful, tough but benign overall planner; and Schwarzkopf was the new Patton, the crusty, cigar-chomping, hell-for-leather combat commander. There was a joyous victory parade in Washington, and then they were honored again at a tumultuous ticker-tape parade in New York. Powell's security people had suggested that he wear a flak vest, but he felt he was heavy enough without one, and he was driven along the parade route in an open 1959 Buick convertible without protection. Both Schwarzkopf and Powell were from the New York area, Schwarzkopf the son of the head of the New Jersey State Police, and Powell the son of parents who had both worked in the garment district. Powell's memory of occasions like this was of newsreel clips of parades for Lindbergh, Eisenhower, and MacArthur. Now riding through a blizzard of ticker tape raining down on himself and Schwarzkopf, he had been delighted; all this fuss, he thought, for two local boys who had made good.
Copyright © 2001 by The Amateurs, Inc.
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